Saul Griffith on the Wattage of a Lifestyle and Energy Literacy

Perhaps my favorite presentation ever on IT Conversations is this session from ETech with Saul Griffith (presentation hardcopy here). He discusses some assumptions on how carbon dioxide levels could be stabilized at non-catastrophic levels and then what the energy requirements of the maximum average lifestyle would be. Interestingly, he analyzes his own lifestyle in terms of the wattage it requires to sustain it, which is a unit I’ve never really thought about for applying to ones life. For example, if you have a drink and discard one 20 oz plastic bottle every day, that works out to 90 watts sustained when you take the amount of energy in the bottle divided by seconds in a day. It’s a really interesting analysis.

In the latter part of the presentation, he discusses the amount of new clean energy that would need to come online to meet his projected energy budget. He talks about the distressingly large but not impossible capacity that needs to be built. For example in terms of wind, he says that a dozen 3 megawatt wind turbines will need to go online every hour for the next 25 years, which is one 100 meter turbine every 5 minutes. He points out that such a creation may be beyond our government, but it is not beyond GM + Ford + Chrysler. I heard this a few weeks ago at the height of discussion of bailouts of the same big three automakers. All I could think was “hell, let’s not have the American public bail out the big three – let’s buy them and retool them into wind turbine and solar thermal turbine factories.” How much industrial capacity in the USA is sitting idle right now? Hell, about 30 miles from me in South Carolina there are factories upon factories sitting dark with unemployed workforces ready to be rehired if someone were to light them back up.

My hero Buckminster Fuller did much of his work in the 40s and 50s with an eye towards solving housing shortages with excess capacity of the American WW II era aircraft factories. HIs Wichita house was designed using the idea of being able to built by aircraft factories with the minimal amount of retooling. This same type of thinking is needed today. We have multiple problems in our economy and our environment and they can all fix each other at the same time. Let’s put people back to work, let’s put our tax money to work, create new energy sources with less environmental impact. Everyone — and I mean everyone — wins on this.

This needs vision and leadership. I pray to R. Buckminster Fuller every night that John Holdren and the Obama administration will see this truth and make this happen. If we don’t do this now, my backup hope is that disaster holds off just long enough so that society doesn’t completely fall apart until after I’m dead. That’s not much of a hope, so let’s do the other thing, please, America.